Our first encounter was in March 1991 at the Amerlinghaus in Vienna, where I was then preparing Ceija Stojka’s very first exhibition Bilder aus dem Leben der ‘Romni’ Ceija Stojka [Pictures from the Life of the Romni Ceija Stojka]. Her art and life are very closely linked with the persecution of the Roma by the Nazis and reflect on it. At the vernissage, when I heard Ceija Stojka talk about her life, I immediately knew that it was and still is important to make this life accessible to the public again and again. Thus, I planned to show the work of this woman – the woman who for the rest of her life had to wear the number tattooed on her forearm in Auschwitz – in annual exhibitions at the Amerlinghaus.
Witness workshops with Ceija Stojka 1992 to 2012 at the Amerlinghaus
Above all, it seemed important to introduce young people to Ceija Stojka’s life story and the history of the Roma, which is reflected in her personal destiny and that of her family. In the spring of 1992, we established the first workshops with Ceija Stojka at the Amerlinghaus, as part of a series of projects by the organisation ‘verein exil’. In 1993, ten workshops were held, later fifteen and, from the mid-1990s onwards, thirty workshops on witnesses took place each year. For the three-hour workshop session in the morning, one school class at a time was invited (from the eighth grade onwards in the Austrian school system, minimum age 14 years).
The workshop started with a brief historical introduction by the moderator. After this, Ceija Stojka guided the pupils through the exhibition and told them in detail about the life of the travelling Roma and about her survival in three Nazi concentration camps. Afterwards, the pupils had the opportunity to ask questions and have a detailed discussion with Ceija. After a break there was a painting workshop. The pupils would paint in watercolours to reflect upon what they had just heard. Ceija walked along the rows of benches, motivated the pupils and also helped with a few brushstrokes.
The closing event of the project was a Roma festival for the school classes, where all participants were invited and their paintings exhibited. On each of these mornings, two Roma music bands performed in the courtyard of the Amerlinghaus and the classes presented Ceija Stojka a ‘thank you’ gift, which had been created in teamwork, on stage. Thus, on 16 June 2010, pupils from a general secondary school class surprised Ceija with a ‘protective coat’, which they had made for her and embroidered with motifs from her survival story. This referred to the fact that Ceija had always finished her sessions with the words: ‘You are our protective overcoat, taking care that something terrible like that is not going to happen again’.
For more than twenty years, witness workshops with Ceija Stojka were held for school classes by ‘verein exil’ at the Amerlinghaus. More than 12,500 pupils had the opportunity to hear from her personally about how Roma had lived before (and after) the Holocaust and what had been done to them during the Nazi reign of terror (see also the Interview with Ceija Stojka:
Since 1993, the big Roma festival in the courtyard of the Amerlinghaus has been the prelude to our autumn event series with its focus on ‘Roma Culture’. Exhibitions, readings, lectures, workshops and projects by ‘roma.klang.theater.exil.’ fill the programme. The evening usually opened with an exhibition of Ceija Stojka’s latest paintings in the gallery space. Ceija was present at the festival every year and was the person that each of those evenings would focus on. In the early years, Ceija sometimes also appeared as a singer, performing one or two Romani songs at the concert given by the family ensemble ‘Amenza Ketane’.
Ceija’s life stories have been documented by us in the many sound recordings made during the workshops. On the occasion of her seventy-fifth birthday in 2008, I published her book Auschwitz ist mein Mantel [Auschwitz Is My Coat] in the ‘edition exil’. The art book contains more than eighty colour prints of selected oil and acrylic paintings and numerous graphics as well as excerpts from Ceija Stojka's life story, told by her during the workshops. The book also contains poems, of which the eponymous Auschwitz Is My Coat should be highlighted. It came about when I was once again visiting Ceija at her home in order to select pictures for an upcoming exhibition. Afterwards, she would usually offer me a Hendlsuppe (chicken broth) or Romano šax, a traditional Romani cabbage dish. At that time, she also recited this poem to me; in other words, she improvised the text ‘Auschwitz is my coat’ – and, of course, I immediately wrote it down.
Ceija Stojka, the witness and artist, was above all an extraordinary person. When she spoke, her words were often simple, in simple sentences, but truthful and undisguised, open and wise. I had made it a habit to always meet her with a notebook and a pen in my hand. Ceija Stojka was a poet of the spoken word, a poet whose words knew a lot about life and a lot about death. But above all, they knew about survival and about being-happy-nonetheless.
Workshops after Ceija's death – In memory of Ceija Stojka
Ceija Stojka passed away in January 2013. Since then, we have continued the workshops. We do so in memory of Ceija and particularly in accordance with her life story – together with Hojda and Nuna Stojka, her son and her daughter-in-law, the band ‘Amenza Ketane’ and with the musician and film-maker Andreas Holleschek. What Ceija Stojka had to say must never be forgotten!
In place of the painting workshop, however, there is now a workshop on music. The pupils work in groups of three to create short performable texts. The basis for their texts is provided by a list of words from Ceija’s poems, from which they are asked to select five. Then the pupils perform their lyrics together, under the guidance of and accompanied by Andreas Holleschek, as ‘rap against racism’.
Andreas Holleschek further helps particularly ambitious classes to perfect their rap songs – by rehearsing and recording the final versions in the studio. These soundtracks are used as playback in the live performances of the classes on stage at the project’s final event. The festival usually takes place in June of the following year in the courtyard of the Amerlinghaus.